He has been a playwright for five decades. Eighteen years apart in age, actor Arundhati Nag has known Girish Karnad, 75, for four of these five decades. She and her late husband Shankar found mentors in Karnad and his wife Saraswathy Ganapathy—Nag has worked in three of Karnad’s plays and first met him on the sets of the Kannada film Ondanondu Kaladalli, in 1978, in which Shankar acted.
Under their non-profit Sanket Trust, Nag and Karnad, along with other members of Bangalore’s theatre community, like M.S. Sathyu, founded the city’s most coveted theatre space, Ranga Shankara, in 2004. “I know how much I sulked and walked out in disagreement,” Karnad recalls. Nag says he initially didn’t see the point in building Ranga Shankara. “He thought it was too big a project.”
At this year’s Ranga Shankara theatre festival, young directors are interpreting nine of Karnad’s plays, including The Fire and the Rain in English by V. Balakrishnan, Yayati in English by Ashish Dabero, Tughlaq in Kannada by Samkutty Pattomkari and Nagamandala in Bengali by Abanti Chakraborty.
At Ranga Shankara’s green and free-spirited environs, Nag and Karnad talk about theatre, translations and life choices. Edited excerpts:
Arundhati Nag: Let’s start with Yayati (Karnad’s debut play in 1961). This was the time when you were probably grappling with going away and leaving the country.
Girish Karnad: When I wrote Yayati, I wanted to be a poet. I didn’t want to be a playwright. I was interested in theatre, but there was never any intention to become a playwright. Then I got the Rhodes Scholarship and in those years, it took three weeks to reach England. My father couldn’t afford to bring me back if I wanted to come back before the stipulated three years. There was the concern that if I go away I’ll marry a white girl and so on. Suddenly one day, I knew I had to write Yayati. I was reading Rajaji’s (C. Rajagopalachari) Mahabharata and from that I got both the stories, Yayati and The Fire and the Rain. I read the Yayati story and the play happened in front of my eyes. With The Fire and the Rain, I had to go through 30-odd years. That work waited. I knew there was a superb story but I waited and worked on it and didn’t want to waste it by writing it in haste. Yayati just came to me, like a dictation.
Nag: Do you have a book in which you jot down ideas that come to you?
Karnad: I keep them in my head. Of course, (it’s different) if you are writing something historical, like with The Fire and the Rain, when what you write has a lot of details. I met scholars and people who conduct yagnas and took notes. With Tughlaq (1964), I went to a library and I made notes. I envy someone like (playwright and poet) Chandrashekhara Kambara who has a whole cache of stories and experiences in his village. I have always had to work on my plays.
Nag: How does the staging of the play affect you?
Karnad: With Yayati, the play was not staged for long. In those days, where could one find four women to act? It was nearly six years before (theatre personality) G.V. Shivanand did the first show here. He found women through his connections. When I wrote Tughlaq, I thought no one is going to do my play so I might as well fill it with people. It had armies and what not and it was immediately taken up. So plays are like children, they grow on their own merit. You can write them and hope for the best.
Nag: How finicky are you with translations?
Karnad: I am very finicky. The good thing is that most of the people who I work with are friends and I can sit with them during the translations. Be it (Ram Gopal) Bajaj, or Pinty (Padmavati Rao) or (B.V.) Karanth. But I translate my plays into English and say if you want to translate it to, say, Assamese, then you have two texts to refer from.
Nag: Personally I have done Bikhre Bimb (translated from the Kannada Odakalu Bimba by Padmavati Rao) in Kannada and in Hindi. When I read the English script, I felt it was once removed. Though English is the language that takes the play and makes it travel. I felt closer to the script in Kannada and in Hindi.
Karnad: Your Hindi is better than your Kannada, because there is an inwardness. Kannada is still your second language, while you can improvise in Hindi and feel the language. Your first performance in Kannada with Anju Mallige when you just learned the words and acted was very powerful and that memory was only wiped away when you did Odakalu Bimba.
Nag: Your performed plays have been Tughlaq, Hayavadana and Naga-Mandala.
Karnad: Hayavadana at the moment is being performed in Tucson, Texas. My perennials are Naga-Mandala and Hayavadana.
Nag: Do you attribute that to the folksiness of the plays?
Karnad: There is a lot of charm. They also give the director a lot of scope.
Nag: They are also woman-centric.
Karnad: It’s amazing how many Indian women studying in American universities study Naga-Mandala. You know, the coming of age, the problems of sex and so on.
They are just charmed by it. My least done play is Bali, and it’s also my weakest play.
Karnad: The Marathi play (Uney Purey Shahar Ek based on Karnad’s Benda Kaalu On Toast, 2012) is in this festival (Ranga Shankara Festival 2013). That is a play in which I admire what the director (Mohit Thakalkar) and the translator have done. The play is 2 hours and 20 minutes. I said cut something and he’s like what? (laughs) I wrote it as a one-and-a-half hour play but it is quite tightly-knit. That is now getting published in English as Boiled Beans on Toast.
Nag: But that is translated by you?
Karnad: I translate my plays to English myself. What happens is translating a play is not like translating a novel. You can translate a novel sentence by sentence. A person who translates a play in English must be able to speak those lines on stage.
Nag: You are the only playwright in the country—I don’t know about the world—who’s also had the experience of an actor.
Karnad: That’s true. I had the experience of doing it, more than in Kannada, in English. So when I do my own translation, I understand. For instance, when you translate (Vijay) Tendulkar or (Mahesh) Elkunchwar into Kannada, you cannot translate into Mysore Kannada.
Nag: Not even Elkunchwar?
Karnad: Especially him. With him you need to understand his pauses. There are lines that you can’t translate. The north Karnataka dialect—because it is close to Marathi—allows these nuances.
Nag: Which was the first play you directed?
Karnad: It was Bikhre Bimb (2005). I did it because no one will understand my stage direction. We adjusted as we were doing it. If I give it to someone to direct, he will never be able to get the sense of continuity between the image and the speaker.
Nag: I remember even when Alyque Padamsee wanted to do it. Alyque had seen the play and Shabana (Azmi) came down to see how this was executed because you can’t figure by reading the script.
Karnad: In fact, I had to tell him some tricks like how the audience will notice transitions. I said: now you throw the paper down and distract. It’s like magic.
Nag: That’s because you are a film director too?
Karnad: Also, I am interested in magic. I wish I were a magician. On television every week there is a show I watch it religiously. The more you know how it is done, it doesn’t disillusion you, it makes you think a marvellous, wonderful world is possible. I have never been able to use magic properly. I have often felt that I should write a play for children—about a doll-maker who is a failure and nothing works for him…but when he is asleep, the dolls get up and take over. What a good fun play! He doesn’t know why he has succeeded, because the dolls have worked for him.
Nag: I have played three female characters in your plays and I have always wondered how you get into the head of a woman. Is it because you grew up with older sisters and had more women around you? Especially in the heap of Broken Images, the layers are so many.
Karnad: My family moved to Dharwad (in Karnataka) when I was 14. In my house there were my two sisters and my niece. In the opposite house were three uncles who had four daughters. I was surrounded by seven women. You know what an uncle’s daughter means. She can be your wife or she can be your sister. If you decide to marry her, she is your wife. If you don’t, she is your cousin, she’s your sister. So when you grow together at that age, you talk a lot because there is also a sexual attraction, there is showing off and so on. So growing up with these seven women, I think I learnt everything I know—to grow up, the jealousies, the not being able to stand each other, the affection, everything. Shyam Benegal has six sisters and I used to keep telling Shyam that this is why you are so good with Bhumika. In Indian society, by the time the boy and the girl reach the age of 10 and 11, they part completely. By the time she matures she develops a separate set of friends. This did not happen in the Saraswat community.
Nag: You were in London for three years when you were at The Nehru Centre when you changed the atmosphere over there with the programming. But it also gave you the opportunity to see plays. A lot of youngsters tend to take on ideas and a play gets produced in rehearsals. How do you react to this?
"If I write a play I want it to be read 200 years from now. Whether I am read I can’t judge, I won’t be there. So I put everything I have: study concentration, imitation, stealing ideas, everything."
Karnad: A play produced by a group is likely to be good but is unlikely to be excellent. You need one vision to shape it. You put it together like nuts and bolts. But the great moments, the touching moments are unlikely, because they come from one’s own depth and you can’t reach into your depth when you are surrounded by other people.
Nag: Coming to this festival... We grew up watching Tughlaq and my first memories of theatre was that Karanth did Macbeth in Delhi and Tughlaq. We are celebrating five decades of your writing and S. Surendranath (creative director, Ranga Shankara) has given it (the festival) a little twist and not got people from my generation, but from the next generation, and made them do fresh productions.
Karnad: I must tell you a story. You know Mita Vashisht, the actor, from the National School of Drama? She acted in a Hindi serial as my wife, and she said to me: “In NSD we did Tughlaq. We analysed it, we wrote essays on it. But to tell you the truth, I thought you were dead” (laughs). So I feel ancient. I have been one of the few playwrights who has kept on writing.
Nag: I think India is lucky to have a playwright who is still active and you still have your cuckoos all in place and are still writing at 75. You go for a morning walk, you read, you catch up with youngsters and you keep in touch with your son.
Karnad: I had a lot of attractive choices to be a film star and to be a film director. I left Bombay and came back because my wife said enough of Hindi cinema. Fortunately, I still get offers. The only thing that mattered to me was plays. I wanted to be a playwright. I made a lot of money because of films though.
Nag: You are the only playwright who people can recognize. Nobody knows what Tendulkar looked like.
Karnad:I was also lucky to belong to a language culture which you belong to as well. Which is that I could speak Hindi well, without an accent. Karanth never lost his Kannada accent. You and your sister (Padmavati Rao) are remarkable with your language.
Nag: I am amazed at the power of Hindi. The moment we did Bikhre Bimb in Hindi, we were able to take it across the country.
Karnad: This is why I get Hindi translations of all my plays. Another thing I can compliment myself on is that I have never been complacent.
Nag: You say that about films! You come back and say I am never doing another film.
Karnad:Money! (and then sings) Money, Money, Money... I don’t know why I was asked to act in Ek Tha Tiger but you don’t know how many offers I got. I could now go and make a career of it. But it will cut into my life. Saras (his wife) keeps saying why, just write.
Nag: When you write a play do you cut everyone off?
Karnad: I almost wrote Bikhre Bimb in front of, and with, you. The Fire and the Rain, I took years. If I write a play, I want it to be read 200 years from now. Whether I am read I can’t judge, I won’t be there. So I put everything I have: study concentration, imitation, stealing ideas, everything.
Nag: Who gets to listen to it first? Is it Saras?
Karnad: She is often the last. Except Tipu Sultan, my plays are all in Kannada and she can’t read Kannada. People ask why I wrote my biography in Kannada, and I say because my wife can’t read it (laughs).
Nag: Do you read your plays out loud?
Karnad: Yes. But there are plays like Talé-Danda, that was read in Kappana’s (Sreenivas G. Kappanna) house. I had just come to Bangalore. There was a belief that Girish can’t write in Kannada and that I am anglicized. It is about Basavanna, it is written in north Karnataka Kannada, which is not my mother tongue. It is about Lingayat history. I have been told I can’t translate, I can’t write Kannada. But I said I’ll do everything. I’ll cross the river and fight the battle on your side. I’ll take your history, your language and do it. After that there has never been any complaint that Girish Karnad can’t write Kannada. As a playwright you need to take these challenges. Hindi and Kannada films could have kept me going.
Nag: This is when the actor becomes such a transient tool.
Karnad: You are a genuine actress, Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) is an actor, Om (Puri) is an actor. I would rather not be acting at all. It happens that people seem to like it.
Nag: How do the children react? I have many people asking me if my daughter is an actress.
Karnad: You have seen your house. There is not one still, one certificate, one memento. To me going to a film is like going to an office. I went to (Kannada actor) Vishnuvardhan’s house. This story is there in my biography. It was jam-packed with trophies. In between, a spiral staircase with a golden banister. On top of that a video playing his own film, which he must have seen earlier. And he says to me: “Girish ella ide, happiness ondu illa” (Girish, I have it all, just don’t have happiness). I wanted to say, I’ll tell you how to get that, open the windows and throw out all the trophies. I was lucky in Saras, who said to me you don’t have to be a celebrity. You don’t have to be an Amitabh Bachchan. Just do what you are good at. She had earned enough money in America and that looked after the children’s education. We were engaged for 15 years and after 15 years she said: “I am not marrying you because you are going to be a star, I want a good married life”. She herself gave up a good medical career in New York to come here and look after the children for 10 years. We were quite determined that what mattered to us was the quality of life.
The Ranga Shankara Festival 2013: A New Generation Directs Girish Karnad will be on from 18-27 October at Ranga Shankara, Bangalore.
For festival schedule and details, visit www.rangashankara.org.